Redwoods San Mateo County La Honda 022916

Arbor Day and Our Shared Public Lands

We Californians are proud of our abundance of natural wonders, and from the verdant forests to the north to our expansive deserts in the south, as environmentalists we’re determined to honor, defend and expand our state’s special places – whether in the mountains, along the coast, or in between.

Yosemite, Death Valley, and the Channel Islands have justifiably earned their place among California’s most spectacular landscapes, but less-visited National Parks like Lassen Peak or Pinnacles, state parks like Henry W. Coe or Montaña de Oro, and ecosystem-wide Wilderness areas like the Ventana or Trinity Alps are just as vital to our state’s environmental health and well-being as our state’s “marquee” outdoor locales.

As spelled out in the landmark 1964 Wilderness Act, which created the National Wilderness Preservation System, wilderness areas are places “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” That humans in the 20th Century sought to legislate such humility into law is a testament to the impact wild places have on the human spirit – but it also reflects a mature understanding of the interconnectedness of life on this planet that came from an earlier generation of environmental leaders.

Even in the 19th Century, before Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir’s most influential years, the nation was in the midst of absorbing the works of thoughtful conservation giants like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The spirit of interconnected preservation and renewal espoused in their work manifested itself in the form of observances like Arbor Day, first celebrated as a statewide effort in Nebraska in April 1872.

We continue to celebrate Arbor Day in a variety of ways today, and one of the best is to impress upon our neighbors the need to expand our special places and set aside public lands with greater levels of protection by taking our friends and family on outings to threatened places. Put their boots on the ground so they can see for themselves what’s at stake.

Unfortunately, on this particular Arbor Day, it seems to be less a matter of expanding parks and special places than defending what previous generations have worked so hard to preserve.

So far in the 114th Congress, we’ve seen on average one bill per day designed to roll back Wilderness protections, privatize National Parks, exploit “locked up” gas and timber resources and “give back” federal lands to western states. It’s as though our modern conservation matrix simply fell out of the sky, when in fact our current regulations came about in reaction to the very same, specific attempts to destroy or undo wild places that we’re seeing now.

From Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to Congressman Rob Bishop of Utah to the right-wing media machine, there is a dangerous, reckless movement to exploit sagebrush rebellion movements in the west, like the Bundy family’s armed standoff with federal officials in 2014 in Nevada, and the seizure and armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon earlier this year. There is a simultaneous desire, and temptation, among both parties to do the bidding of Big Oil an Big Gas by snuffing out long-standing conservation law and discrediting long-standing federal protections, including legislative proposals seeking to:

  • Force National Parks to take on the character of amusement parks or theme parks, where profit motive and selling beer, souvenirs and enabling destructive recreation becomes the key component of parks over preservation and conservation.
  • Dismantle funding for conservation programs that benefit communities, like the movement that led to the deliberate failure to renew the 1964 Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). While the fund was eventually renewed by Congress, it was done so on a far more limited basis with less money being collected from offshore oil and gas leases.
  • Open our federally protected forests and watersheds, typically managed by the U.S. Forest Service and BLM, to development. The precursor of the U.S. Forest Service, the nation’s “forest preserves” were initially established by President Benjamin Harrison in 1897 for the specific purpose of ending rampant exploitation and destruction of western lands that were occurring at an unsustainable, destructive rate in the west at the time, typically in the vacuum of any kind of local, enforceable law.
  • “Dispose” our shared public lands to states so they can be sold off for mining, logging, or oil and gas drilling – despite the fact states have neither the mechanisms in place or money to manage such vast swaths of public land, and that to do so would violate numerous federal regulations.

Without constant vigilance, public land foes from Congress to local government will steadily undo years of protections for America’s wildlands, thereby facilitating efforts by resource extractors to gain access to prime recreational lands and shut you out in the process: hikers, campers, hunters, anglers and horseback riders alike.

So on this Arbor Day, and all the days after, consider a pilgrimage to the Giant Sequoias of the Sierra Nevada, the iconic Redwoods of the North Coast, or even the gnarled, high-altitude windblown Bristlecone pines of the White Mountains high above the Owens Valley, to enjoy our state’s bounty of remarkable, often ancient trees.

Many of California’s big trees and great forests are survivors of prehistoric ages. Some Bristlecone pines in the White Mountains, growing in small, spread-out groves, are over 5,000 years old – the oldest living things found anywhere on the planet. Similar groves of “younger” Bristlecone pines can be found closer to home in the higher elevations of the San Gabriel range.

Whether wandering a Redwood grove or simply enjoying a spring hike among the old Jeffrey pines and Lodgepole pines in our Peninsular ranges in San Diego County, like the Laguna Mountains or Palomar range, consider how much our nation’s efforts have preserved this Arbor Day Weekend, how much yet there is to save – and how easily our conservation bounty can be squandered by bad government or hijacked government.

As the fight over the Roadless Rule during the Bush administration made clear, so many of our nation’s conservation laws remain in place at the discretion of the president. Like a microcosm of the larger environmental portfolio, how a candidate reacts to real-world environmental decisions, and addresses questions of conservation and habitat adds insight into how they may govern on climate change, rising sea levels, oil pipelines and air and water pollution.

Let us recall that mature understanding of the interconnectedness of life that was so well understood by legislators in 1964, and ensure that the strides we’ve made as a nation in protecting our forests, rivers and watersheds is not squandered by the very American style of short-term political gain at any cost.

Happy trails, and Happy Arbor Day.

San Mateo County Memorial Redwoods photo © 2016 Tommy Hough, all rights reserved.